Not even Lake Eden’s nosiest residents suspected Hannah Swensen would go from idealistic newlywed to betrayed wife in a matter of weeks. But as a deadly mystery unfolds in town, the proof is in the pudding . . .
When The Cookie Jar becomes the setting of a star-studded TV special about movies filmed in Minnesota, Hannah hopes to shine the spotlight on her bakery—not the unsavory scandal swirling around her personal life. But that’s practically impossible with a disturbing visit from the shifty character she once believed was her one and only love, a group of bodyguards following her every move, and a murder victim in her bedroom. Now, swapping the crime scene in her condo for her mother Delores’s penthouse, Hannah and an old flame team up to solve a case that’s messier than an upended chocolate cream pie. As suspects emerge and secrets hit close to home, Hannah must serve a hefty helping of justice to an unnamed killer prowling around Lake Eden . . . before someone takes a slice out of her!
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It was a cold Sunday morning in February when Hannah Swensen left the warmth of her condo and drove to Lake Eden, Minnesota. A frown crossed her face as she traveled down Main Street and passed The Cookie Jar, her bakery and coffee shop. It had snowed during the night, and they would have to shovel the sidewalk before they could open for business in the morning.
Hannah gunned the engine a bit as she began to drive up the steep hill that led to Holy Cross Redeemer Lutheran Church. The church sat at the very top and it overlooked the town below. Hannah pulled into the parking lot and came very close to groaning as she realized that her entire family was standing at the bottom of the church steps, waiting for her to arrive. Perhaps their intent was to allay her anxiety about what she planned to do, but it didn't work and Hannah was sorely tempted to turn around and put things off for another week. Of course she didn't do that. Hannah was not a quitter. Somehow she had to gather her resolve and carry on with as much grace and dignity as she could muster.
The first person to arrive at her distinctive cookie truck was Hannah's youngest sister, Michelle. Hannah resisted the urge to tell Michelle that she ought to be wearing boots and plastered a welcoming smile on her face. "Michelle," she said, by way of a greeting. "Get in the backseat. It's cold out there."
"I'm okay. I just wanted to be the first to talk to you, Hannah. Are you completely sure that you want to do this?"
Hannah shook her head. "Of course I don't want to, but I don't really have a choice. It's only right, Michelle."
"But you don't have to do it, not really," Michelle argued, sliding onto the backseat and shutting the door behind her. "Word gets around and everyone's probably heard what really happened by now."
"That's doubtful, Michelle. Nobody in our family has said anything to contradict our cover story for Ross's absence. And I know that Norman and Mike haven't mentioned it to anyone. You haven't heard any gossip about it, have you?"
"No," Michelle admitted.
"And you know the whole town would be buzzing about it if anyone knew."
"Well ... yes, but we can figure out another way of telling them. You don't have to put yourself through the pain of getting up in front of the whole congregation and talking about it."
"Yes, I do. They deserve an explanation. And they also deserve an apology from me for lying to them."
The front door opened and Hannah's mother, Delores, picked up the heavy cookie platter that was nestled on the passenger seat and got in. "I heard what you just told Michelle and you're wrong, Hannah. No one here expects you to apologize. What happened is no fault of yours."
The other back door of Hannah's cookie truck opened and Hannah's middle sister, Andrea Swensen Todd, got in. "And nobody here wants to see you upset. If you think we owe anyone an apology, let me do it. I can get up there and tell them what happened."
"Thanks, but no. It's nice of you to offer, Andrea, but this is something I have to do myself."
"I understand, dear," Delores said, "but I wish you'd told me your plans earlier. We could have gone shopping for something more appropriate for you to wear."
Hannah glanced down at her blue pantsuit. "A lot of women wear pantsuits to church, especially in the winter. What's wrong with mine?"
"Nothing's wrong ... exactly," Delores explained. "It's just that the color washes you out. At least you're here early and we have time to fix your makeup. A darker color lipstick would do wonders, and you need some blusher on your cheeks."
Andrea opened her purse and glanced inside. "Mascara and eye shadow couldn't hurt. I've got something that would bring out the color of Hannah's eyes."
"And I can do something with her hair," Michelle offered.
"Hold it right there!" Hannah told them. "My appearance doesn't matter that much. What really matters is what I'm going to say. I've worn this same outfit to church at least a dozen times and you've never criticized my appearance before."
"Today is different," Delores pointed out. "Grandma Knudson told me that you asked to stand in the front of the church right after Reverend Bob makes his announcements. Everybody's going to see ..." Delores stopped speaking and a panicked expression crossed her face. "You're not planning to wear your winter boots, are you?"
Hannah had the urge to laugh. She had never, in her whole life, walked down the aisle of their church wearing winter boots. She came very close to saying that, but she realized that the root of her mother's concern was anxiety about how the congregation would receive what Hannah had to tell them.
"Relax, Mother," Hannah told her. "I brought dress shoes with me and I'll change in the cloakroom as soon as we get inside." Delores nodded, but she still looked worried. "Your dress shoes aren't brown, are they?"
"No, Mother. I know how you feel about wearing brown shoes with blue. These are the black shoes we bought at the Tri-County Mall last year."
"Oh, good!" Delores drew a relieved breath and glanced at the jeweled watch her husband, Doc Knight, had given her. "Then let's go, girls. It'll take us a while to get Hannah ready."
Hannah wisely kept her silence as she walked to the church with her family. Once the cookies she'd brought for the social hour after the church service had been delivered to the kitchen next to the basement meeting room, Hannah suffered her family's attempt to make her into what Delores deemed church appropriate.
"It's time," Delores declared, glancing at her watch again. "Follow me, girls."
As they walked down the center aisle single file, Hannah spotted her former boyfriend, Norman Rhodes. Norman was sitting on one side of his mother, and Carrie's second husband, Earl Flensburg, was sitting on her other side. Norman smiled at Hannah as she passed by and he held his thumb and finger together in an okay sign.
Hannah swallowed the lump that was beginning to form in her throat and reminded herself that she knew almost everyone here. The Holy Redeemer congregation consisted of friends, neighbors, and customers who came into The Cookie Jar. They would appreciate her apology and no one would be angry with her ... she hoped.
She was beginning to feel slightly more confident when she noticed the other local man she'd dated, Mike Kingston. He was sitting with Michelle's boyfriend, Lonnie Murphy, and both of them smiled and gave her friendly nods. Mike was the head detective at the Winnetka County Sheriff's Department and he was training Lonnie to be his partner. Both men usually worked on Sundays, but they must have traded days with a pair of other deputies so that they could come to hear Hannah's apology.
Doc Knight saw them coming up the aisle and he stepped out of the pew so that they could file in. Hannah went first so that she would be on the end and it would be easier for her to get out and walk up the side aisle to the front of the church when it was time.
"Are you all right?" Michelle asked her as they sat down.
It took Hannah a moment to find her voice. "Yes, I'm all right."
"But you're so pale that the blusher on your cheeks is standing out in circles." Michelle reached for the hymnal in the rack and flipped to the page that was listed in the church bulletin.
"Is something wrong?" Andrea asked in a whisper.
"Everything's fine," Hannah told her, pretending to be engrossed in reading the verse of the familiar hymn they were preparing to sing.
The organist, who had been playing softly while people filed into the church, increased the volume and segued into the verse of the hymn. This precluded any further conversation, and Hannah was grateful.
If there had been a ten-question quiz about the sermon that Reverend Bob delivered, Hannah would have flunked it. She was too busy worrying about what she wanted to say to pay attention. There were times during the sermon that Hannah wished Reverend Bob would hurry so that she could get up, apologize, and go back home. At other times, she found herself wishing that the sermon would go on forever and she'd never have to walk to the front of the church and speak.
When Reverend Bob finished, stepped down from the pulpit, and went into the room at the side of the nave to hang up his vestments, the butterflies of anxiety in Hannah's stomach awoke and began to churn in a rising cloud that made her feel weak-kneed and slightly dizzy. She concentrated on breathing evenly until Reverend Bob reappeared in the black suit he wore once the sermon was over.
The announcements Reverend Bob made were short and sweet. There was a request for donations of canned food from the Bible Church for their homeless shelter in the church basement, an announcement of the nuptials scheduled on Valentine's Day, a reminder that the lost and found box in the church office was overflowing with forgotten mittens, gloves, and caps, a notice of a time change in Grandma Knudson's Bible study group, and two notifications of baptisms to be held after church services in the coming month.
"And now we have a special request from Hannah Swensen," Reverend Bob told them. "She'd like to say a few words to you before the social hour."
Hannah stood up and slid out of the pew. She walked up the aisle at the side of the church on legs that shook slightly to join Reverend Bob. She cleared her throat and then she began to speak.
"Almost everyone in the congregation today attended my wedding to Ross Barton in November. Most of you were also at the Lake Eden Inn for the reception."
There were nods from almost everyone in attendance and Hannah went on. "I asked to speak to you today because I need to apologize. I think you all know that Ross is gone, and my family and I told you that he was on location for a new special that he was doing for KCOW Television. That is not true. I'm sorry to say that we lied to you and we owe you an apology for that."
"If Ross isn't out on location for a special, where is he?" Howie Levine asked.
Hannah wasn't surprised by the question. Howie was a lawyer and he always asked probing questions. "Ross is in Wisconsin."
"Is he filming something there?" Hal McDermott, co-owner of Hal and Rose's Café, asked.
"No. I'll tell you why he's there, but first let me tell you what happened on the day Ross left Lake Eden."
Haltingly at first, and then with more assurance, Hannah described what had happened on the day Ross left. The words were painful at first, but it became easier until all the facts had been given.
"Did Ross leave you a note?" Irma York, the wife of Lake Eden's barber, asked.
"No, there was nothing. His car was still there, his billfold was on top of the dresser, where he always left it when he came home from work, and he'd even left his driver's license and credit cards. It was almost as if he'd packed up his clothes and ... and vanished."
"You must have been very worried," Reverend Bob said sympathetically.
"Not at first. I was upset that he hadn't called me to say he was leaving, but I thought that he had been rushed for time and he'd call me that night. Then, when I didn't hear from him that night or the next day, I got worried."
"Of course you did!" Grandma Knudson, Reverend Bob's grandmother and the unofficial matriarch of the church, said with a nod.
"After three days," Hannah continued, "I was afraid that something was very wrong and I asked Mike and Norman to help me look for Ross."
Mike stood up to address the congregation. "It took us weeks of searching, but two of my detectives finally found Ross. Right after I verified his identity, Norman and I went to Hannah's condo to tell her." He turned around to face Hannah. "Go on, Hannah."
"Yes," Hannah said, gathering herself for the most difficult part of her apology. "When I came home that night, Mike and Norman were waiting for me. Both of them looked very serious and I knew right away that something was wrong. That's when Mike said that they'd found Ross, and ..." Hannah stopped speaking and drew a deep, steadying breath. "Mike told me that Ross had gone back to his wife."
"His wife?" Grandma Knudson looked completely shocked. "But you're his wife, Hannah! We were all right here when you married Ross!"
There was a chorus of startled exclamations from the congregation. Hannah waited until everyone was quiet again and then she continued. "Ross was already married when he married me. And that means my marriage to him wasn't legal."
"You poor dear!" Grandma Knudson got up from her place of honor in the first pew and rushed up to put her arm around Hannah. Then she motioned to her grandson. "Give me your handkerchief, Bob."
Once the handkerchief was handed over, Grandma Knudson passed it to Hannah. "What are you going to do about this, Hannah?"
"I ... I don't know," Hannah admitted truthfully. "I just wanted to tell all of you about this today because my family and I lied to you and we needed to set the record straight."
"Hannah could sue Ross for bigamy," Howie pointed out. "And since bigamy is a crime, Ross could be prosecuted. Do you want to press charges, Hannah?"
"I'm not sure. All I really know is that I never want to see him again." There was a murmuring of sympathy from the congregation as Hannah dabbed at her eyes with the borrowed handkerchief. "I know all of you thought I was married. I thought I was married, too, but ... but I wasn't. And since you gave me wedding presents under false pretenses, I'd like to return them to you."
"Ridiculous!" Grandma Knudson snorted, patting Hannah's shoulder. And then she turned to face the worshippers. "You don't want your wedding gifts back, do you?"
"I don't!" Becky Summers was the first to respond. "Keep the silver platter, Hannah. Consider it an early birthday present." "The same for me!" Norman's mother chimed in. "You keep the crystal pitcher, Hannah."
Several other members of the congregation spoke up, all of them expressing the same wishes, and then Grandma Knudson held up her hand for silence. "If anyone here wants a wedding gift back, contact me and I'll make sure you get it. And in the meantime, I think we've kept Hannah up here long enough." She turned to Hannah. "I know you brought something for our social hour, Hannah. I saw Michelle run down the stairs with a big platter. What wonderful baked goods did you bring today?"
Hannah felt a great weight slip off her shoulders. It was over. She'd come and accomplished what she'd set out to do. Now she could relax and spend a little time with the people she knew and loved.
"I brought Valentine Whippersnapper Cookies," she told them. "They're a new cookie recipe from my sister Andrea. Since we're about ready to start baking for Valentine's Day at The Cookie Jar, Andrea and I really want your opinion. Please try a cookie and tell us what you think of them."
Grandma Knudson turned to the congregation. "I'll lead you downstairs so you can start in on those cookies. And then I'm coming back up here for a private word with Hannah." She took Hannah's arm, led her to the front pew, and motioned to her to sit down. "I'll be right back," she said. "Just sit here and relax for a few moments."
Hannah watched as the church emptied out with Grandma Knudson leading the way. Then she closed her eyes for a moment and relished the fact that the tension was leaving her body. She felt good, better than she had for a long time. Perhaps Reverend Bob was right and confession was good for the soul.
Hannah turned around when she heard the sound of footsteps. Grandma Knudson was coming back. "Thank you," she said, as Grandma Knudson sat down next to her.
"You're welcome. I heard some very interesting things down there, Hannah. I'm really glad I got those fancy new hearing aids."
"I didn't know you had hearing aids!"
"Neither does anyone else except Bob, and I swore him to secrecy. I've changed my opinion about a lot of people in this town. Why, the things I've heard could fill a gossip column!"
"But you wouldn't ..."
"Of course not!" Grandma Knudson said emphatically. "But I may not tell anyone about my hearing aids for a while. It's a lot of fun for me."
Hannah gave a little laugh. It felt wonderful to laugh and she was grateful to Grandma Knudson for giving her the opportunity.
"Seriously, Hannah," Grandma Knudson began, "you haven't heard from Ross since Mike and his boys located him, have you?"
Hannah shook her head. "No, not a word."
"All right then. If Ross calls you, tell him that if he knows what's good for him, he'd better never show his face in Lake Eden again. I heard Earl say he wanted to run Ross down with the county snowplow, and Bud Hauge asked Mike and Lonnie to give him five minutes alone with Ross if they picked him up. And Hal McDermott claimed he was going to leave out Rose's heaviest frying pan so he could bash in Ross's head."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Chocolate Cream Pie Murder"
Copyright © 2019 H.L. Swensen, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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